By Naghem S.
What does it mean to be “welcoming”? It’s a friendly smile to the stranger you pass on the street or the simple hello to your neighbor. Maybe it’s cooking someone’s favorite meal and inviting them to dinner or learning a few greetings in a different language. “Welcoming” can be found in the smallest spaces of everyday life, yet these small gestures of kindness and humanity can spread beyond what is seen. In my experience, welcoming has been a double-edged sword.
I came to the United States when I was seven years old, fleeing a war-torn country and running from the old me to the new me. Stepping off the plane with my mother, I entered an entirely new world. One where the people didn’t look like me, speak like me, dress like me, or even smile like me. They smiled far too much. Over time I learned to act like the people around me. I learned the language, changed how I dressed, and learned to smile when smiling was still a foreign movement on my face. Yet even with these changes, I was still a stranger in strange lands. People were nice and welcoming to me as long as I fit their expectations. When I started wearing my hijab, I lost a lot of friends. They didn't understand why I chose to wear the hijab when I was living in the “land of the free.” When I spoke about how hard life was in the United States, people around me would get mad. “If you hate it here so much, go back to your country.”
Those phrases are forever etched in the walls of my brain, echoing loudly on particularly hard days. People can be cruel to each other, especially to those who are different. One can argue that not everyone is nice and sometimes you will run into situations that are just unavoidably mean. While that is true, the pain and exclusions hit differently when you weren’t born in the country where you currently live. Humans have a strong and spiritual connection to land and that connection is amplified when the distance between person and land grows.
As I sit in the loneliness of my busy existence with people, both friend and foe, flickering in and out of my life, I begin to question who I am and where I belong. Words on replay grow louder and stronger with each passing moment. They take up so much space that for a moment I become them.
“Welcome to America: you are safe now.”
“Welcome to America: honey you need to learn English before you can play with other kids.”
“Welcome to America: you can be whatever you want to be.”
“Welcome to America: what’s that thing on your head?”
“Welcome to America: wow your English is so good.”
“Welcome to America: why are you here? We don’t want terrorists here!”
“Welcome to America: burn the scarf and go back home.”
“Welcome to America: you don’t have to wear that thing on your head. You are free here.”
“Welcome to America: where are you really from?”
“Welcome to America, Welcome to America, Welcome to America, Welcome to America………”
And as I become lost to the dark narratives that threaten to overtake my entire being, a new thought enters. Quiet and shy, it’s hard to hear with the sounds of the world around me. So I close my eyes and close my ears. I listen with my heart and I feel with my soul.
“Come back home, I miss you and you are welcome here.”
The Denver Public Library's Cultural Inclusivity department collaborates with Denver's multicultural community to create equitable opportunities for learning, discovery, and connection.
We offer Plazas, an open community space where people from all over the world connect with information and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice English, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help!